Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you for the invitation to come back to Marywood. It is wonderful to be here and I am touched by your warm and generous welcome.
Sometimes I tell people that I went to college on a bus. And that’s almost true. In the fall of 19-something or other, I traveled to Scranton, Pennsylvania for the first time. Most of my journey was by bus from my home in North Carolina to New York. My brother who lived in the city brought me the rest of the way.
Before that day, I had never visited to Marywood—far too expensive. In fact, I had never even seen the campus except perhaps in one of those sepia-toned images that is closer to an illustration than a photograph. There were no glossy viewbooks—no virtual tours. So my first sight of campus was when my brother dropped me off to begin school.
Campus seemed a little empty when I arrived. I was the only person on my floor in the dorm that night—or at least I thought I was until I heard all sorts of crazy sounds filtering under my door. The next morning I learned that the source of the commotion was upperclassmen patrolling the halls. I also learned that I was not even supposed to be on campus yet—I had arrived a day early.
So, fortunately for me, today’s welcome is much different than when I arrived here the first time.
Today I’d like to talk about empowerment. Empowerment means: to invest with power or to equip with ability. Empowerment brought me to campus on that first night of misgivings and empowerment enabled me to take advantage of the opportunities I have been afforded throughout my life.
I have been empowered by my parents who by dint of their innate talents and informal education raised eight children; by the nuns at Mother of Mercy primary and secondary school in Washington, North Carolina; and by the professors at Marywood.
I was surrounded by people and institutions committed to the ideal that, “A child’s success in life should not be predetermined at birth.” Whenever I showed any sign of faltering or of doubting the possibility of success, they were there to encourage, scold, and prod me back on track. Yet, a professional journey like mine may be less likely today than it was then. Despite the achievements of successive waves of progress in civil rights and equal protections through the law, our American society is failing to empower all of her children.
I believe that in my journey are lessons that our society has since forgotten and de-prioritized. I believe that the confidence of my parents and the persistence of my teachers can instruct us how to move forward.
This was a different place for me. I grew up in small town North Carolina. And that was pre-civil rights days, so everything—schools, churches, public bathrooms, movie theaters, and water fountains—was segregated. But you have to realize, that from my perspective at that point in time, it was not “pre-civil rights,” but rather it was just how it was…normal. In my town, black people navigated two different societies—the primary society of our own community consisting of family, neighbors, and the school and churches we attended, and a second, majority-white world consisting of the businesses, shops, and most of the jobs in town.
Washington was, and still is, a small town, and with a few exceptions, the people I knew were like us, poor. Not just fashionably poor, but genuinely poor. My parents always managed to keep food in our bellies, but there were time when at the end of the noonday meal, it was not clear where dinner was going to come from. I don’t remember having lots of food in the kitchen cabinets in the winter. The summers were better. But because almost everyone else in our world was also poor, the state of our family finances was not stigmatized—rather it was…normal.
It seems incongruous to have been that poor, and yet to have attended a small private school with low enrollment classes, and individualized attention…but I did have that experience at Mother of Mercy School in Washington. How often does that happen in America today? Ours was a mission school; similar to ones we are most likely to hear about in other countries where the majority of the populace is poor.
I have to tell you: I needed all the attention that I got in that setting. I am told that as a toddler I was boisterous and rambunctious —so much so that my grandmother named me “the destroying angel.” Unfortunately, I carried those ways to first grade. I was too often too loud. I got caught doing things I was not supposed to be doing. I even got into a few fights. Sometimes the punishment for bad behavior was to stay after school and clap the blackboard erasers. This turned out to be very important for me. I got to spend individual time with my teachers, to talk with them, and to learn that I wanted them to think well of me. In other words, I was like many kids today who start school and need time and attention to adjust.
I realize how lucky I was to have come up in a time and place where you could be naughty and outlive the “behavior problem” label. I think I was pretty straightened out by the time I was in the 4th grade and by the time I was in 8th grade I was unfailing studious, and unbearably sanctimonious. My sister Rosalind, a fellow Marywood alumna, tells me I was not a fun person…but that’s her opinion.
From my flawed and wonderful hometown, I came to Marywood eager to learn everything possible and make my way in the world. I had many excellent teachers who had high expectations of me, and I made lifelong friends.
What I learned at Marywood—the way I learned, the focus on breadth and depth—was a launch for me, for what I wanted to study, for my determination to pursue graduate education.
Those opportunities empowered me go on to Saint Louis for my graduate work, then to Copenhagen on a Fulbright Fellowship, and then back to North Carolina, this time to UNC-Chapel Hill, a university that I could not have attended as a student because of segregation.
And these experiences helped start me down the path that took me to Lawrence, Kansas, as chancellor of the University of Kansas, an international research university with a proud tradition of lifting students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world.
I’ve changed over the years, so has Marywood. New buildings, new academic programs…boys.
But what have not changed are Marywood’s values – values that have shaped my life, and that I hope will shape yours.
One of those values is empowerment. It’s an appropriate topic, as my Marywood education enabled me to have experiences that neither my parents and grandparents, nor I would have envisioned. But my time here also reinforced the responsibilities that we each have if we are to live up to the values of the Marywood.
When you tease apart the meaning of empowerment, you see it is made up of several interwoven threads: access to education, the ability to achieve one’s full potential, dedication to a pluralistic society, and our role as citizens in that society, the capacity to make a difference. All of these threads have as particular meaning to me and to my life
Further, each of these threads runs through our nation and world. And, each is today threatened. Our response to these threats will go a long way in determining the fate of millions of children and young adults in our nation.
Access to education is the first element mentioned in the empowerment value. It’s what enabled me to be where I am today, thanks to the support of my family and community, the encouragement of the nuns in my elementary and high schools, and a lot of scholarships.
But that access is threatened. It’s threatened by a systematic disinvestment in education by local, state and federal governments that is not only driving college tuition up, but is also creating vast gaps between children who attend school in poor communities and those fortunate enough to live in more affluent areas.
A lack of access to education harms the second element of empowerment, the ability to achieve one’s full, God-given potential. How much potential have we lost because a child was born in a ghetto, rather than a gated community? How many potential leaders will never shine because their school just didn’t have the resources to offer courses that prepare students for the next steps in their lives, whether college or work? It isn’t just their prosperity that suffers, but rather that of our entire world, when potential is wasted like this.
Through the sacrifices of many who preceded us, we live in a pluralistic society, one where we can worship as we like, think as we like, petition the government for a redress of grievances, pursue happiness, and live the lives of free people in a free nation. But this too is threatened by extremists who say we must think as they do, or else we’re un-American. Or un-Christian. Or simply un-worthy of the rights we enjoy as citizens, or even as human beings.
And finally, Marywood’s values call on us to live as conscientious citizens. This is becoming even harder to do as propaganda masquerades as news, and it becomes a challenge simply to discern the truth, let alone decide what the best course of action is. And exercising the most basic right and responsibility of citizenship—the vote—is becoming more difficult through a campaign to throw up barriers that disproportionately harm elderly, poor, and minority voters.
These are complex, daunting challenges—it’s enough to become overwhelmed, or even depressed. But I’ve seen such challenges overcome during my own lifetime. I’ve seen them overcome on the individual level by the likes of my resourceful parents and the missionary nuns at Mother of Mercy. And I’ve seen our whole society forced to confront these challenges through the sacrifice of activists.
When I was growing up, I could not sit at the lunch counter in my hometown. I could not have attended the university that I would eventually teach at. I couldn’t do those things because I am black. The story is the same for millions of others who looked like me. Those millions of men and women lived and died never having the chance to reach their full potential, held back by extremists preaching segregation forever. It took federal intervention to integrate schools and grant the same access to education to all students, regardless of race. Our entire society was shaken to the core as we rejected centuries of our American caste system designed to dis-empower the people of color in our nation.
The changes our world has experienced just over the course of my lifetime are extraordinary.
Much sweat and sacrifice were required. Much of it from young people—people like our students here today—who do the most to ensure that progress toward justice continues. All the nuns and parents of the world can’t do it without you, your vigor, your commitment, and your clarity of purpose.
All that Martin Luther King accomplished happened before his 40th birthday—a birthday he never lived to see. Cesar Chavez first took to the fields to advocate for workers’ and Mexican-American rights when he was in his twenties. And countless men and women in their late teens and early twenties have fought, and marched, and died for justice and equality amongst all human beings.
I’m not asking you to be a King or a Chavez. But I am asking you to devote yourselves to the cause they worked for: a society that gives its members the chance to reach their full potential—a society that empowers the least able of us to reach our full potential. A nation that respects its pluralistic roots and that educates its people so they can be active, conscientious citizens. A nation that has the foresight to invest time and resources on a naughty little girl from a poor family of second-class citizens.
What’s more, I’m asking you to work for the common good, to create a society that reflects Christ’s teaching that we are each other’s keepers and that which we do to the least of His children, we do to Him.
A child’s success in life should not be predetermined at birth. And we must all fulfill our duty to each other.
These are the values of empowerment. They align with other values, such as respect for the uniqueness and dignity of each individual. The need to work, together, as members of a community for the benefit of all. The drive to excel in all aspects of our lives. And, as Marywood students and soon graduates, the pursuit of ideals such as truth and justice in service of the common good.
These should all be familiar, because they are all reflected in the core values of Marywood University. They’re the values that have guided my life, and are what I hope will guide yours.
You’ve been given a tremendous gift in the form of the education you’re receiving here. Millions, if not billions, of people around the world would give anything to have that gift, for they know the power that education holds to change a life. I also appreciate the power of education, because it changed mine.
The faculty and students I met at Marywood helped me see the world beyond a small corner of North Carolina and come to understand that the only person who could limit my aspirations was me. My time here enabled me to turn my interest in helping people understand themselves and each other into a career as a psychology professor.
For me, education is empowerment. It is what gives each of us the opportunity to achieve our full potential, and it allows us to uphold our responsibility as citizens of this nation, and the world.
As I said earlier, our world faces challenges. But I believe those challenges will be overcome…by you.